No matter where I go in the world to teach, the traditional coaches mantra of “Can’t pass, can’t hit” is one of the first statements I hear in any language. Then, when we introduce our sport to new players of any age, the first skill taught is almost always “the pass” – followed by incantations by the priest of the court on how important passing is, and then demonstrations of the form of the holy passer. While the Black Knight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail might be my hero for his perseverance, those who have been following this blog know the importance of humor and critical thinking in being the best coach you can be.
So I ask you today, to stop teaching passing. Before I get more international and national “what #&!@” type statements from coaches whose long standing traditions are being assaulted, I must explain that I am not asking you to stop teaching the skill found in most first ball reception – the forearm pass. What I am asking you very powerfully to change, is that you must teach from the start, and every practice, the skill of serve reception.
You see, being the world’s gold medalist at “passing” (both overhead and forearm forms) as taught in pair passing, wall passing and all sorts of other forms of partner and straight line training, actually gets in the way of being able to do the MOST important skill of receiving serve. This is NOT a play on words. This is getting to the heart of the matter that too much time is spent skill developing the pass, when what matters when you get onto the court and attempt to win a game, is your serve reception skill.
So many coaches are saying they are “training gamelike” while the things they are doing on the court are far, far from “training in reality.” Case in point…how many points in a GAME start with a serve – and have either an error/ace/serve reception? OK, how many of your drills do? The answer simply is…not enough. Think of why the kids love to play queen of the court or speedball so much. What starts each of those games, and if you err on your serve or serve reception – you’re gone! The winners stay on training in these games are simply giving great experience in winning state or the USAV Jr. Nationals….where winners advance and losers prepare for the next season.
The technique of passing is pretty easy to grasp. Below the waist, the forearm pass has the arms contact the ball ideally above the wrists (meaning players need good eye to forearm skills, one not done in any other skill or sport, so a bit of a challenge to start). That contact spot is formed at an angle which will deliver the ball to the target. Not a lot of motion, start hands on knees, move your arms in the most efficient way to the correct served ball contact point, and send it on its way to the setter. Stance is a bit upright, as we want to "err" up, not low/parallel to the floor laser ball flights. Simple.
Here is how USAV puts the "ready position:" Feet pointed straight forward, knees in front of toes and butt underneath; back more straight than forward; arms in line with knees and out from body with palms up; feet are flat on the floor but the weight is forward and over the big toe (not knock-kneed); square to the ball; wide feet, but not so wide that you can't take a good first step."
When you get balls coming in higher, well above the waist, you do the overhead pass skill – but again you need to know how to handle a flat hard serve, not a looping friendship partner rainbow set done back and forth. This is an overhead serve reception, not a set. So the ball is contacted in such a way above the head in a setter type ball shaped hand pocket, and you direct it to the setter. This skill starts off a bit more successfully, as we have usually established eye to hand coordination.
The skill of serve reception starts by watching the habits of the server you are seeking to pass - watching THROUGH the net, not when the ball rises above it. Watching their ball bouncing habits, mannerisms, body position, and the toss. All these lead you to be a better serve receiver over the long haul of experience, as you learn to anticipate and what will happen even before contact. The servers whole skill up to, at and right after contact gives the receivers important hints as to what serve is likely to come. This is why even Misty May at the USAV Beach Coaches Accreditation Program training agreed that over three quarters of the success in serve reception for a beach player happens BEFORE the ball comes over the net. We learn these tips over time by receiving serves, not passing in front of a net with a partner or against a wall. Watch how less experienced players have to learn how to adjust their overhead pass technique for a the skill of receiving hard, flat floater or spin serves - no matter if it is a jump or a standing version.
How many times in the game do your players get “throated” misjudging a serve and being stuck with the ball in the no-man's land too high to forearm pass and too low for an overhead pass? Here is where the “alligator” pass, hands pressed duckbill-like together to pop the ball UP (not back to a partner), with one hand below to put the ball up. Your hands are almost in … Or you can reverse pass, the national team calls these a “tomahawk” to pass the ball off the “bottom” of your forearms and wrists together, to still put the ball up high on your side of the net. We need to give our serve receivers skill sets which help them at least send the ball up, if not to the setter, when they misread a serve and can’t perform the overhead or forearm pass. Go for it.
The other thing about the technique of “passing” is that the best serve receivers, while always seeking to be as simple in motion as possible, more often than not are found in less than ideal “technique” positions. Nonetheless, they still send the ball to the setter very well, if not perfectly. They know that the ball in serve reception does not know how old or experienced you are, or which foot is forward or if you are a disabled player or not. The ball only knows the contact angle that the .05 second contact duration is on a player’s body. As Carl McGown puts it, “the ball knows angles.” So even if your body is not in any good “passing form,” it can serve receive wonderfully well, as long as that contact point sends the ball to the setter target.
One other thought that you might consider adding to your program is to pass as many of the serves that likely up to now have simply been flying over the net and hitting the floor. For many years, as serving is so important, I taught serving as a high priority. We served a lot. Tens of thousands of balls a season in doing “serving drills,” or simply focusing on serving. Except I also was wasting tens of thousands of chances to practice…serve reception. Letting ball after ball, hundreds per practice, simply fall to the floor in or out of bounds. Remember how important it is for your players to know the most important skill of READING, including the concept of “out.” Serving into the net does not teach what “out” might be when there are serve receivers, but neither does serving in or out when nobody is there to read and serve receive the balls that do fly over the net. Now we no longer let the serves fly over the net to land unread and undesired on the floor. Instead we start with at least one person reading the other side’s servers, and that player serve receives the ball up to herself then goes back to serve.
So, given that the #1 and #2 things that are shared between medal winning teams at the highest international level and at the 12 and under level in juniors is who serves the best and serve receives the best – we need to teach those two skills more. Luckily we know that since we learn best from things that are gamelike - the ideal serve reception training is – serve receive-set-hit, the ideal setting trainings are serve reception-set-hit, and the ideal hitting training is serve receive-set-hit, so we simply need to train that way more.